The Surge Dirge

Congressional Democrats hate the surge. But they don’t dare try to stop it.

Sen. Ted Kennedy is the Senate Democrats’ army of one, trying to launch a revolution when they would prefer cordial discussion. Scheduled to discuss health care at the National Press Club, Kennedy uncorked a stemwinder about the Democrats’ responsibility to shut down the Iraq war. He is proposing legislation that would prevent the troop surge President Bush will unveil tomorrow night by prohibiting additional troops and additional dollars for it. Kennedy implored his brothers and sisters in Congress to resist the president’s specific new plan, and to revive their branch of government—to “reclaim the rightful role of Congress and the people’s right to a full voice.”

“We have the solemn obligation now to show the American people that we heard their voices,” Kennedy thundered. Democrats in Congress must fight Bush with something more than “pale actions, timid gestures and empty rhetoric.”

Shortly afterward, across town in the U.S. Capitol, the new Senate Democratic leaders took their place before the microphones just off the Senate floor to put forward their plan: a bipartisan, nonbinding bill called the Pale Action and Timid Gesture Resolution. That wasn’t the real name, of course, but it is exactly what Kennedy insisted Congress should not do. Afterward, I asked Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois what had happened to his own suggestion that Congress limit the number of troops that could fight in Iraq as a way to stop the surge. “That’s Senator Kennedy’s bill,” said the second-highest-ranking Democrat. Yes, but didn’t you suggest that troops be limited, I asked? “That’s Senator Kennedy’s bill.” You’re on your own, Ted.

Senate Democratic leaders say they are merely being sensible. They don’t want an effort to stop funding for the new strategy to be misinterpreted as a lack of support for American troops. In two days of reporting on the House and Senate side, it is clear that Democratic leaders are more worried about being tagged as anti-G.I. than being penalized by liberals for not doing all they can to end the war. Their posture may change, but for now, what seems likely is that the Democrats will do no more than put together a nonbinding resolution that would show disapproval.

There are reasons for Democrats to be cautious in challenging the president on Iraq. As Sen. Joe Biden argues, the president has the authority to conduct his war, so why provoke an ugly fight that the Democrats would lose and that would also expose them to easy caricature? Polls show that Democrats do still have to convince the country that they can be stewards of America’s national-security interests. The tepid measure also could fracture the GOP. By promoting the less confrontational nonbinding resolution, Democrats can corral uneasy Republicans like Susan Collins, Chuck Hagel, and Richard Lugar, who have said they are against a surge. A bipartisan piece of weak legislation would make more of a public statement than a partisan effort to limit funding.

These arguments will not sit well with the liberal activists who are planning to deluge their Democratic representatives in the coming days with petitions, rallies, and phone calls demanding a strong against the troop increase.

Kennedy may find more allies on the House side. On Sunday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted that Democrats might cut off funding for the troop increase when Bush makes his supplemental budget request to keep the war going. John Murtha, who chairs the defense appropriations committee, where the supplemental would be debated, is planning to hold hearings within a week to pick apart the president’s plan and perhaps put forward his own surge-killing legislation to limit funding and troop levels. (The White House no doubt regrets treating Murtha so roughly when he suggested a troop redeployment.)

Democratic leader Reid says the funds-limiting option is still on the table and could come after the bipartisan resolution. Democrats are also noodling other options, including a measure floated by Robert Byrd to rewrite the October 2002 authorization-of-force resolution that opened the door for the Iraq invasion of 2003.

Time matters if Democrats want to take forceful action. Going after the supplemental funding bill will take too long. That request from the administration isn’t likely to arrive until early February. By then, troops could be on their way and the question would flip from being about a future action to one already under way. “The horse will be out of the barn by the time we get there,” says Kennedy. “And then we’ll be asked, are we going to deny the body armor to the young men and women that are over there?”

Republicans are confident that Democrats won’t take any drastic action. “It would reinforce a perception in the country,” said Sen. Lott on Tuesday. “We want men and women in the military to have what they need.” A senior White House aide sounds just as confident: “I think Pelosi leaned out a little too far in her talking points.” But just in case they go forward, Lindsey Graham is pre-emptively making the harshest charge—suggesting that those in Congress who would vote against a surge “are definitely sending a signal to terrorist organizations that they’re winning.”

Those are just the kind of attacks that worry some Democrats. After his speech, Kennedy was asked about Republicans who are prepared to escalate the rhetoric so quickly. He scoffed. It was the Bush administration that had imperiled America’s national security, not Democrats. “If you have a candidate and they can’t explain that,” he said of future Democrats, “they don’t deserve to get elected.”